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Stuck in Traffic

In response to:

Delusions of the Drug Cops from the July 15, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

As an avid reader of the New York Review, I was gratified to see you devote so much space to Swordfish (July 15, 1993). As an occasional reader of Michael Massing’s articles, I was not surprised to see him condemn it, though I find the petulant tone of his review curious.

Mr. Massing has reviewed Swordfish as if it were a book about federal drug control policy, a subject that has long been close to his heart. Swordfish surely pales, he predictably implies, in comparison to the book he will produce someday. Perhaps so. The drug problem needs solid analysis, and I hope his book makes a contribution. But your readers should be aware that Swordfish is not a book about drug control policy. Though it coincidentally takes place in that world, and an epilogue briefly addresses the subject, the book’s principal concerns—along with the specific story it tells—are espionage, the spy bureaucracy of the federal government, and some of the people who inhabit it, subjects of which Mr. Massing displays little knowledge.

I will trouble your readers with a response to only two of his ill-informed criticisms—the oxymoronic claims that I am both dishonest and unwitting.

Mr. Massing struggles at considerable length to make a case that I inflated the significance of Carlos Jader Alvarez in order to make Swordfish seem important. Here are the facts: the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration conceived and launched Operation Swordfish to penetrate what US intelligence indicated were the most important Colombian mafia syndicates operating in the early part of 1982. That intelligence, which is detailed on pp. 227–229 and 556–567 of Swordfish, grouped Carlos jader Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cabrera, Bernardo Londono Quintero, and Juan Mata Ballesteros as a “consortium” operating at the center of the drug industry in Colombia. The DEA believed this group was responsible for more than a third—perhaps more than half—of all the cocaine imported from Colombia into the US at that time.

Mr. Massing seizes upon a record-shattering confiscation of cocaine at the Miami Airport in March, 1982, as proof that the DEA and presumably Swordfish were wrong about the significance of Alvarez, that he was a “mere minnow” in the “sea of cocaine smugglers.” In fact, the DEA’s analysis at the time was a good deal more sophisticated and subtle than Mr. Massing’s hindsight. The Miami confiscation, which Swordfish reports fully on pp. 175–176, unquestionably indicated that the mafia was smuggling far more cocaine into the United States than the US Government had previously estimated. But intelligence also indicated that the Alvarez consortium was deeply involved in that shipment, and therefore was at least partly responsible for the increase. In fact, one of the Alvarez consortium, Bernardo Londono Quintero, was believed to have financed 80 percent of the shipment. Overall, according to these intelligence estimates, the only smuggler responsible for shipping more cocaine to the US than Alvarez was Carlos Lehder Rivas. When Lehder ran out of cocaine, he referred his customers to Alvarez. (Swordfish, pp. 299–300, referring to a teletype from DEA Bogota to DEA Miami, July 28, 1982, 12:21 PM.)

The people who gather such intelligence are the first to acknowledge its imprecision. One of the main reasons a government runs undercover operations like Swordfish is to expand a meager data base, and one of my objectives in writing Swordfish was to examine the spy bureaucracy’s thought processes as they evolved. Still, there can be no reasonable doubt that Carlos Jader Alvarez was one of the very top Colombian smugglers until Operation Swordfish dismantled his syndicate beginning in October, 1982. Devastated by the grisly murders of three of his children, and emotionally exhausted by the revenge he had exacted, Alvarez did little more than mark time until he was arrested two years later and extradited to the US for trial. Both the supply of and demand for cocaine soared even higher after that, as Swordfish reports in several places, e.g. p. 567. Carlos Alvarez clearly would have been at the center of that increased smuggling if he had remained active as long as his cohorts in the Medellín and Cali cartels.

Mr. Massing claims that Swordfish “unwittingly” and “unintentionally” shows that “the notion that we can prevent drug abuse by organizing elaborate undercover operations and pursuing foreign drug lords remains a powerful American illusion.” I know of no astute analyst who argues that undercover operations can prevent drug abuse. I certainly do not make such an argument in Swordfish, wittingly or unwittingly, and Mr. Massing’s attempt to play the straw-man game in his review is juvenile. My only argument, made briefly in the Swordfish epilogue (influenced by Professor Mark Moore of Harvard, among others), is that operations like Swordfish and its progeny can and do disrupt drug trafficking syndicates, however temporarily, and that even more drugs would be smuggled into the US if it were not for such efforts at infiltration. But disrupting the drug mafia obviously is only one facet of what must be a multi-faceted strategy for fighting drugs. In order for the strategy to have any chance of working, it must include fully funded treatment for all who need it and well-aimed education for those who may be inclined to use drugs.

Along with Mr. Massing, I applaud recent indications that the Clinton Administration is reevaluating federal drug policy. Mandatory minimum sentences surely need another look. But Mr. Massing will look in vain at Janet Reno’s statement on May 7 and various comments by President Clinton for any indication that the Administration doubts the wisdom of continuing to try to infiltrate, disrupt, arrest, and prosecute the gangsters and terrorists who are smuggling hard drugs into the US. In an August 12 press conference, Ms. Reno said, “I would like to see the major traffickers and the major distributors incapacitated for the rest of their crime-producing life” (transcript pp. 21–22). It is clear from the context that “incapacitated” means “imprisoned.”

David McClintick
New York City

Michael Massing replies:

After devoting six hundred pages to a lengthy undercover drug operation conducted by America’s top drug enforcement agency, Mr. McClintick asserts that his book is not about drug policy. I disagree. His position is all the more unconvincing in light of his epilogue, in which he wholeheartedly embraces the premises underlying the war on drugs. As he writes in one of many similar passages, the “smuggling of heroin, cocaine, and other such lethal substances into the United States, and their sale to our citizens, particularly our children, is as heinous an activity as international terrorism and should be treated accordingly by the criminal law.” To me, that sounds like he’s taking a position on drug policy. Nowhere in my review did I accuse Mr. McClintick of dishonesty. I did, however, question his ability to make sense of his data, and his letter reinforces my doubts. As in his book, he insists on the importance of Carlos Jader Alvarez, the chief target of Operation Swordfish and the central villain in his book. In my review, I maintained that the DEA was wasting its time going after Alvarez, a small-fry in the drug world. As evidence, I mentioned a series of huge drug seizures that Alvarez had little to do with. Mr. McClintick asserts that Alvarez played a major role in one such shipment, involving 3,906 pounds of cocaine seized at Miami Airport. Yet the passage he cites from his book (pp. 175–176) shows just the opposite. There, McClintick reports that the DEA agents investigating Alvarez—after hearing of the Miami seizure—eagerly attempted to link him to it. But when a DEA informant called two of Alvarez’s assistants in Florida, “the results were negative,” McClintick writes. The informant told his supervisors, “I don’t think they have anything to do with it, the way they reacted.”

In interviews, I asked several senior DEA officials about Alvarez, and not one had ever heard of him. And the leading histories of the Colombian drug trade, such as Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen’s Kings of Cocaine, do not even mention him. Certainly compared to the Medellín and Calicartels, Alvarez was a very minor figure, and Mr. McClintick simply has no way of knowing, as he asserts, that Alvarez “clearly would have been at the center” of the increased smuggling from Colombia had he remained free.

And suppose he had? The whole point of my review was that apprehending traffickers like Alvarez is a futile exercise. There’s no better demonstration of this than the recent killing of Pablo Escobar. After a decade-long campaign, the Medellín Cartel has effectively been smashed, yet the amount of cocaine entering the United States has not abated. Undeterred, the DEA—acting on the same logic described in Swordfish—is now preparing to go after the Cali Cartel. The result is likely to be more violence in Colombia, and no less cocaine in the United States.

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